June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was a deafblind American
author, activist and lecturer.
All below has been excerpted from public online sources and compiled here for reference.
author, activist, and lecturer
Born June 27, 1880
Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA
Died June 1, 1968
Easton, Connecticut, USA
Keller was born at an estate called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama,
on June 27, 1880, to parents Captain Arthur H. Keller and Kate Adams
Keller. She was not born blind and deaf; it was not until nineteen months
of age that she came down with an illness described by doctors as "an
acute congestion of the stomach and the brain", which could have
possibly been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not last
for a particularly long time, but it left her deaf and blind. By age
seven she had invented over sixty different signs that she could use
to communicate with her family.
In 1886, her mother
Kate Keller was inspired by an account in Charles Dickens' American
Notes of the successful education of another deaf/blind child, Laura
Bridgman, and travelled to a specialist doctor in Baltimore for advice.
He put her in touch with local expert Alexander Graham Bell, who was
working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised the couple to contact
the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the school where Bridgman had been
educated, which was then located in South Boston, Boston, Massachusetts.
The school delegated teacher and former student, Anne Sullivan, herself
visually impaired and then only 20 years old, to become Helen's teacher.
It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship.
Sullivan got permission
from Helen's father to isolate the girl from the rest of the family
in a little house in their garden. Her first task was to instill discipline
in the spoiled girl. Helen's big breakthrough in communication came
one day when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on
her palm, while running cool water over her palm from a pump, symbolized
the idea of "water"; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding
the names of all the other familiar objects in her world (including
her prized doll).
In 1890, ten-year-old
Helen Keller was introduced to the story of Ragnhild Kaata - a deafblind
Norwegian girl who had learned to speak. Ragnhild Kaata's success inspired
Helen - she wanted to learn to speak as well. Anne was able to teach
Helen to speak using the Tadoma method (touching the lips and throat
of others as they speak) combined with "fingerspelling" alphabetical
characters on the palm of Helen's hand. Later, Keller would also learn
to read English, French, German, Greek, and Latin in Braille.
In 1888, Helen attended
the Perkins School for the Blind. In 1894, Helen and Anne moved to New
York City to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. In 1898
they returned to Massachusetts and Helen entered The Cambridge School
for Young Ladies before gaining admittance, in 1900, to Radcliffe College.
In 1904 at the age of 24, Helen graduated from Radcliffe magna cum laude,
becoming the first deaf and blind person to graduate from a college.
When Keller visited
Akita Prefecture in Japan in July 1937, she inquired about Hachiko,
the famed Akita dog that had died in 1935. She expressed to a local
that she would like to have an Akita dog. An Akita called Kamikaze-go
was given to her within a month. When Kamikaze-go later died (at a young
age) because of canine distemper, his older brother, Kenzan-go, was
presented to her as an official gift from the Japanese government in
Keller is credited
with having introduced the Akita to America through Kamikaze-go and
his successor, Kenzan-go. By 1938 a breed standard had been established
and dog shows had been held, but such activities stopped after World
War II began.
Keller wrote in
the Akita Journal: "If ever there was an angel in fur, it was Kamikaze.
I know I shall never feel quite the same tenderness for any other pet.
The Akita dog has all the qualities that appeal to me — he is
gentle, companionable and trusty."
Helen went on to
become a world-famous speaker and author. She is remembered as an advocate
for the sensorially handicapped, but also supported progressive causes.
She was a suffragist, a pacifist and a birth control supporter. In 1915
she founded Helen Keller International, a non-profit organization for
preventing blindness. Helen and Anne Sullivan traveled all over the
world to over 39 countries, and made several trips to Japan, becoming
a favorite of the Japanese people. Helen Keller met every U.S. President
from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson and was friends with many
famous figures including Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin and
Helen Keller was
a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in
support of the working classes from 1909 to 1921. She supported Socialist
Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.
Her political views were reinforced by visiting workers. In her words,
"I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could
not see it, I could smell it."
who had praised her courage and intelligence before she came out as
a socialist now called attention to her disabilities. The editor of
the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that her "mistakes sprung out of the manifest
limitations of her development." Keller responded to that editor,
referring to having met him before he knew of her political views:
"At that time
the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember
them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the
public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must
have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him...Oh, ridiculous
Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system,
a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness
which we are trying to prevent."
Helen Keller also
joined the famous labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW),
in 1912 after she felt that parliamentary socialism was "sinking
in the political bog." Helen Keller wrote for the IWW between 1916
and 1918. In "Why I Became an IWW," Helen wrote that her motivation
for activism came in part due to her concern about blindness and other
"I was appointed
on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the
first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control,
found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions,
often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social
evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life
of shame that ended in blindness."
In 1960, her book Light in my Darkness was published in which she advocated
the teachings of the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg.
She also wrote a lengthy autobiography called The Story of My Life.
She wrote a total of eleven books, and authored numerous articles.
On September 14,
1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal
of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.
The state of Alabama
honored Keller — a native of the state — on its state quarter.
The Helen Keller Hospital was also dedicated to her.
Keller devoted much
of her later life to raise funds for the American Foundation for the
Helen Keller died
on June 1, 1968, at the age of 87 from natural causes at 3:35 P.M. in
Arcan Ridge, Easton, Connecticut, more than 30 years after the death
of Anne Sullivan, and was cremated in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Some
sources, including an obituary in The New York Times, mistakenly said
she died in Westport, Connecticut. The confusion arose from her use
of a Westport postal box for her Arcan Ridge estate. Easton, which did
not have a post office at the time, has named a middle school after
one of its most famous residents. Her memorial service was at Washington
National Cathedral, where she was buried. Her tomb is located in the
rear of the St. Joseph's Chapel on the Crypt level of the Cathedral.
A silent film, Deliverance
(not to be mistaken for the other, much later and more famous movie
Deliverance which is irrelevant to Keller) first told Keller's story.
The Miracle Worker, a play about how Helen Keller learned to communicate,
was made into a movie three times. The 1962 version of the movie won
Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Anne Bancroft
who played Sullivan and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Patty
Duke who played Keller.
Another recent film
about Helen Keller's life is The Miracle Continues. This semi-sequel
to The Miracle Worker recounts her college years and her early adult
life. None of the early movies hint at the social activism that would
become the hallmark of Helen's later life, although the The Walt Disney
Company version produced in 2000 states in the credits that Helen became
an activist for social equality.
The story of Helen
Keller is the story of a child who, at the age of 19 months, suddenly
lost her hearing and vision, and who, against overwhelming odds and
with a great deal of persistence, grew into a highly intelligent and
sensitive woman who wrote, spoke, and labored incessantly for the betterment
of others. So powerful a symbol of triumph over adversity did she become
that she has a definite place in the history of our time and of times
Helen Adams Keller
was born a healthy child in Tuscumbia, Alabama, U.S. on June 27, 1880
in a white, frame cottage called "Ivy Green." On her father's
side she was descended from Alexander Spottswood, a colonial governor
of Virginia, who was connected with the Lees and other Southern families.
On her mother's side, she was related to a number of prominent New England
families, including the Hales, the Everetts, and the Adamses. Her father,
Captain Arthur Keller, was the editor of a newspaper, the North Alabamian.
Captain Keller also had a strong interest in public life and was an
influential figure in his own community. In 1885, under the Cleveland
administration, he was appointed Marshal of North Alabama.
The illness that
struck the infant Helen Keller, and left her deaf and blind before she
learned to speak, was diagnosed as brain fever at the time; perhaps
it was scarlet fever. As Helen Keller grew from infancy into childhood
she was wild and unruly, and had little real understanding of the world
Helen Keller's new
life began on a March day in 1887 when she was a few months short of
seven years old. On that day, which Miss Keller was always to call "The
most important day I can remember in my life," Anne Mansfield Sullivan
came to Tuscumbia to be her teacher. Miss Sullivan, a 20-year-old graduate
of the Perkins School for the Blind, who had regained useful sight through
a series of operations, had come to the Kellers through the sympathetic
interest of Alexander Graham Bell. From that fateful day, the two—teacher
and pupil—were inseparable until the death of the former in 1936.
How Miss Sullivan
turned the uncontrolled child into a responsible human being and succeeded
in awakening and stimulating her marvelous mind is familiar to millions,
most notably through William Gibson's play and film, The Miracle Worker,
Miss Keller's autobiography of her early years, The Story of My Life,
and Joseph Lash's Helen and Teacher.
Miss Sullivan began
her task with a doll that the children at Perkins had made for her to
take to Helen. By spelling "d-o-l-l" into the child's hand,
she hoped to teach her to connect objects with letters. Helen quickly
learned to form the letters correctly and in the correct order, but
did not know she was spelling a word, or even that words existed. In
the days that followed she learned to spell a great many more words
in this uncomprehending way.
One day she and
"Teacher"—as Helen always called her—went to the
outdoor pump. Miss Sullivan started to draw water and put Helen's hand
under the spout. As the cool water gushed over one hand, she spelled
into the other hand the word "w-a-t-e-r" first slowly, then
rapidly. Suddenly, the signals had meaning in Helen's mind. She knew
that "water" meant the wonderful cool substance flowing over
her hand. Quickly, she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its
letter name and by nightfall she had learned 30 words.
Thus began Helen
Keller's education. She proceeded quickly to master the alphabet, both
manual and in raised print for blind readers, and gained facility in
reading and writing. In 1890, when she was just 10, she expressed a
desire to learn to speak. Somehow she had found out that a little deaf-blind
girl in Norway had acquired that ability. Miss Sarah Fuller of the Horace
Mann School was her first speech teacher.
Even when she was
a little girl, Helen Keller said, "Someday I shall go to college."
And go to college she did. In 1898 she entered the Cambridge School
for Young Ladies to prepare for Radcliffe College. She entered Radcliffe
in the fall of 1900 and received her bachelor of arts degree cum laude
in 1904. Throughout these years and until her own death in 1936, Anne
Sullivan was always by Helen's side, laboriously spelling book after
book and lecture after lecture, into her pupil's hand.
Helen Keller's formal
schooling ended when she received her B.A. degree, but throughout her
life she continued to study and stay informed on all matters of importance
to modern people. In recognition of her wide knowledge and many scholarly
achievements, she received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University
and Harvard University and from the Universities of Glasgow, Scotland;
Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South
Africa. She was also an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute
marriage, in 1905, to John Macy, an eminent critic and prominent socialist,
caused no change in the teacher-pupil relationship. Helen went to live
with the Macys and both husband and wife unstintingly gave their time
to help her with her studies and other activities.
While still a student
at Radcliffe, Helen Keller began a writing career that was to continue
on and off for 50 years. In 1903, The Story of My Life, which had first
appeared in serial form in the Ladies Home Journal, appeared in book
form. This was always to be the most popular of her works and today
is available in more than 50 languages, including Marathi, Pushtu, Tagalog,
and Vedu. It is also available in several paperback editions in the
Miss Keller's other
published works include Optimism, an essay; The World I Live In; The
Song of the Stone Wall; Out of the Dark; My Religion; Midstream—My
Later Life; Peace at Eventide; Helen Keller in Scotland; Helen Keller's
Journal; Let Us Have Faith; Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy; and The Open
In addition, she
was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, writing most
frequently on blindness, deafness, socialism, social issues, and women's
rights. She used a braille typewriter to prepare her manuscripts and
then copied them on a regular typewriter.
During her lifetime,
Helen Keller received awards of great distinction too numerous to recount
fully here. An entire room, called the Helen Keller Archives at the
American Foundation for the Blind in New York City, is devoted to their
preservation. These awards include Brazil's Order of the Southern Cross;
Japan's Sacred Treasure; the Philippines' Golden Heart; Lebanon's Gold
Medal of Merit; and her own country's highest honor, the Presidential
Medal of Freedom. Most of these awards were bestowed on her in recognition
of the stimulation her example and presence gave to work for the blind
in those countries. In 1933 she was elected to membership in the National
Institute of Arts and Letters. During the Louis Braille Centennial Commemoration
in 1952, Miss Keller was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor
at a ceremony in the Sorbonne.
On the 50th anniversary
of her graduation, Radcliffe College granted her its Alumnae Achievement
Award. Her Alma Mater also showed its pride in her by dedicating the
Helen Keller Garden in her honor and by naming a fountain in the garden
for Anne Sullivan Macy.
Miss Keller also
received the Americas Award for Inter-American Unity, the Gold Medal
Award from the National Institute of Social Sciences, the National Humanitarian
Award from Variety Clubs International, and many others. She held honorary
memberships in scientific societies and philanthropic organizations
throughout the world.
Yet another honor
came to Helen Keller in 1954 when her birthplace, "Ivy Green,"
in Tuscumbia, was made a permanent shrine. It was dedicated on May 7,
1954 with officials of the American Foundation for the Blind and many
other agencies and organizations present. In conjunction with this event,
the premiere of Miss Keller's film biography, "The Unconquered,"
produced by Nancy Hamilton and narrated by Katharine Cornell, was held
in the nearby city of Birmingham. The film was later renamed "Helen
Keller in Her Story" and in 1955 won an "Oscar"—the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award as the best feature-length
documentary film of the year.
Miss Keller was
indirectly responsible for two other "Oscars" a few years
later when Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won them for their portrayals
of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller in the film version of "The Miracle
More rewarding to
her than the many honors she received were the acquaintances and friendships
Helen Keller made with most of the leading personalities of her time.
She met many world figures, from Grover Cleveland to Charlie Chaplin,
Nehru, and John F. Kennedy. Among those she met, she counted many personal
friends including Katharine Cornell, Van Wyck Brooks, Alexander Graham
Bell, and Jo Davidson. Two friends from her early youth, Mark Twain
and William James, expressed beautifully what most of her friends felt
about her. Mark Twain said, "The two most interesting characters
of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller." William James
wrote, "But whatever you were or are, you're a blessing!"
As broad and wide
ranging as her interests were, Helen Keller never lost sight of the
needs of other blind and deaf-blind individuals. From her youth, she
was always willing to help them by appearing before legislatures, giving
lectures, writing articles, and above all, by her own example of what
a severely disabled person could accomplish. When the American Foundation
for the Blind, the national clearinghouse for information on blindness,
was established in 1921, she at last had an effective national outlet
for her efforts. From 1924 until her death she was a member of the Foundation
staff, serving as counselor on national and international relations.
It was also in 1924 that Miss Keller began her campaign to raise the
"Helen Keller Endowment Fund" for the Foundation. Until her
retirement from public life, she was tireless in her efforts to make
the Fund adequate for the Foundation's needs.
Of all her contributions
to the Foundation, Miss Keller was perhaps most proud of her assistance
in the formation in 1946 of its special service for deaf-blind persons.
She was, of course, deeply concerned for this group of people and was
always searching for ways to help those "less fortunate than myself."
Helen Keller was
as interested in the welfare of blind persons in other countries as
she was for those in her own country; conditions in the underdeveloped
and war-ravaged nations were of particular concern. Her active participation
in this area of work for the blind began as early as 1915 when the Permanent
Blind War Relief Fund, later called the American Braille Press, was
founded. She was a member of its first board of directors.
When the American
Braille Press became the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (now
Helen Keller International) in 1946, Miss Keller was appointed counselor
on international relations. It was then that she began the globe-circling
tours on behalf of the blind for which she was so well known during
her later years. During seven trips between 1946 and 1957 she visited
35 countries on five continents. In 1955, when she was 75 years old,
she embarked on one of her longest and most grueling journeys, a 40,000-mile,
five-month-long tour through Asia. Wherever she traveled, she brought
encouragement to millions of blind people, and many of the efforts to
improve conditions among blind people outside the U.S. can be traced
directly to her visits.
During her lifetime,
Helen Keller lived in many different places—Tuscumbia, Alabama;
Cambridge and Wrentham, Massachusetts; Forest Hills, New York, but perhaps
her favorite residence was her last, the house in Easton, Connecticut
she called "Arcan Ridge." She moved to this white, frame house
surrounded by mementos of her rich and busy life after her beloved "Teacher's"
death in 1936. And it was Arcan Ridge she called home for the rest of
her life. "Teacher's" death, although it left her with a heavy
heart, did not leave Helen alone. Polly Thomson, a Scotswoman who joined
the Keller household in 1914, assumed the task of assisting Helen with
her work. After Miss Thomson's death in 1960, a devoted nurse-companion,
Mrs. Winifred Corbally, assisted her until her last day.
Helen Keller made
her last major public appearance in 1961 at a Washington, DC, Lions
Clubs Meeting. At that meeting she received the Lions Humanitarian Award
for her lifetime of service to humanity and for providing the inspiration
for the adoption by Lions International of their sight conservation
and aid to blind programs. During that visit to Washington, she also
called on President Kennedy at the White House. After that White House
visit, a reporter asked her how many of our presidents she had met.
She replied that she did not know how many, but that she had met all
of them since Grover Cleveland!
After 1961, Helen
Keller lived quietly at Arcan Ridge. She saw her family, close friends,
and associates from the American Foundation for the Blind and the American
Foundation for Overseas Blind, and spent much time reading. Her favorite
books were the Bible and volumes of poetry and philosophy.
Despite her retirement
from public life, Helen Keller was not forgotten. In 1964 she received
the previously mentioned Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1965, she
was one of 20 elected to the Women's Hall of Fame at the New York World's
Fair. Miss Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt received the most votes among
the 100 nominees. Helen Keller is now honored in The Hall of Fame for
Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field.
Helen Keller died
on June 1, 1968, at Arcan Ridge, a few weeks short of her 88th birthday.
Her ashes were placed next to her beloved companions, Anne Sullivan
Macy and Polly Thomson, in the St. Joseph's Chapel of Washington Cathedral.
On that occasion a public memorial service was held in the Cathedral.
It was attended by her family and friends, government officials, prominent
persons from all walks of life, and delegations from most of the organizations
for the blind and deaf.
In his eulogy, Senator
Lister Hill of Alabama expressed the feelings of the whole world when
he said of Helen Keller, "She will live on, one of the few, the
immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man
can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there
are no boundaries to courage and faith."